US Senate Hearing Recognizes Mainstream Dam Threat to Mekong River

International Rivers
Friday, September 24, 2010

Foreign Relations Committee warned of impacts to 40 million people if Xayaburi and other mainstream dams go forward

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing yesterday on the plans to build a series of 12 dams on the Mekong Mainstream. The Committee, chaired by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, was notified of the extensive impacts to the river and livelihoods that could be expected if mainstream dams were to go forward. As the US is a donor to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the Committee was urged to do everything in its power to ensure that mainstream dams do not proceed until the findings of the MRC-commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment are considered and adopted by regional governments.

The hearing took place a day after the Mekong River Commission announced that it had received official notification from Laos that it wished to proceed with the first dam on the lower Mekong River, the Xayaburi Dam. This notification has triggered for the first time the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), a requirement under the 1995 Mekong Agreement for countries to jointly review any dam proposed for the Mekong Mainstream.

Senator Webb, in his opening remarks to the hearing, commented on how important the Mekong River fisheries are for food security in the region, and expressed concern about the dramatic impacts that could occur to livelihoods and the river ecosystem were the proposed dams to go forward. Senator Webb stated that the dam plans were "profoundly disturbing" on a political, economic and social level.

The Lao Government, the project developer Ch. Karnchang, and the Mekong River Commission seem determined to push forward with the PNPCA process for the Xayaburi Dam despite the fact that the Strategic Environmental Assessment report - whose purpose was to evaluate the cumulative impacts of the proposed mainstream dams - has not even been publicly released, let alone distributed and debated throughout the region.

Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director for International Rivers, testified before the Committee. Ms. Imhof relayed to the Committee the Strategic Environmental Assessment's findings and its recommendation that any decision on mainstream dams be deferred for at least 10 years. Ms. Imhof told the Committee that "to allow the Xayaburi consultation process to go forward without considering the findings of the Strategic Environmental Assessment would be like getting a diagnosis of cancer and then ignoring it."

 "The US Senate's interest in Mekong Mainstream Dams is a sign of the growing concern internationally about the plans to dam the Mekong Mainstream and the far-reaching impacts that the cascade would have on the Mekong Basin and the livelihoods of millions of people in the region," said Ms. Imhof.

The Xayaburi Dam would be the first dam to be built on the lower Mekong Mainstream. It would displace thousands of people in Laos, disrupt an important fish migration route and cause the extinction of the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish by destroying one of their last natural spawning habitats. The dam is being proposed by Thai company Ch. Karnchang and over 95% of the power generated would be sold to EGAT, the Thai electric utility.

Earlier this month Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a letter to the Thai Prime Minister asking him to cancel the plan to buy electricity from Xayaburi Dam.

Also testifying at the hearing were Mr. Joseph Yun, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia, Dr. Richard Cronin from The Stimson Center and Ms. Dekila Chungyalpa of the World Wildlife Fund.

Media contacts: 

Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director, International Rivers: + 1 510 717 4745

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